Profile with Katherine Eban

Katherine Eban (Rhode Island & St John’s 1989) is an investigative reporter focusing on public health and homeland security issues. She is a contributor at Fortune magazine and also writes for Self, Vanity Fair, and other national magazines. Katherine holds a MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, a MPhil in English Literature from the University of Oxford, and a BA in English Literature from Brown University.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

Katherine Eban: I just finished a book called The Big Truck That Went By. It’s an account of the earthquake and the aftermath in Haiti. It’s written by a journalist that worked for the Associated Press. It’s a pretty pointed condemnation of international aid and the US’s role in trying to help Haiti.

Rhodes Project: What surprised you most about Oxford?

Katherine Eban: At the time, I didn’t really feel that Americans were all that welcome and that there was some sort of resentment against Rhodes Scholars.

Rhodes Project: Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, how do you get past it?

Katherine Eban: Yes, I do! It’s horrible. A lot of times, I will know that if I’m struggling to find the right words that I don’t yet have the big ideas that I need. Usually what I’ll do is breathe and walk – and step away from the computer and try to gather my thoughts. That usually helps.

Rhodes Project: If you could change one thing about the way the public consumes the news, what would it be?

Katherine Eban: I wish more of the public read local newspapers. I am very concerned about the demise of a lot of the smaller papers around the country. These local papers are really vital for the healthy functioning of our democracy because they train whole generations of investigative reporters. By covering local news – the local Water Board, the City Council – lots of young journalists got trained to do accountability journalism.  My concern is that we’re losing those training grounds, which are incredibly important.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite past project?

Katherine Eban: I just completed and published a 10,000 word story in Fortune Magazine which was an deep dive investigation of a company called Ranbaxy - an Indian generic drug company. It exposed fraud inside the company that went all the way up to top executives. It’s an article that was literally years in the making, but we were finally able to publish it.

Rhodes Project: Is there an issue that you’ve investigated that you are surprised did not get more exposure in the mainstream media?

Katherine Eban: You can never predict what kind of impact a story will have.  When I was starting out, I broke a series of stories for The New York Observer about the impact of a new private contract to treat sick inmates at the Rikers Island jail.  The contract gave the administrator a financial incentive to withhold care.  Inmates were dying.  The stories were very dramatic.  At first, it seemed that no one cared.  Finally, the New York Times began following the stories -- and ultimately, offered me a job because of the series.    

Rhodes Project: Do you ever find a conflict in investigative writing between agenda and objectivity? How do you balance that?

Katherine Eban: No, none. If you go in with any preconceptions, then this is definitely not your line of work. You’ve got to want nothing more than to expose the truth, whatever that is.  In every article, something will happen in terms of the reporting that will surprise me.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to devote to any one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Katherine Eban: That’s easy.  I am passionate about wildlife and desperately concerned about the poaching of Africa’s iconic animals. We’re looking at the potential extinction of rhinos, tigers, and elephants. I actually started a PTA committee at my daughter’s school called BeastRelief and we are trying to save rhinoceroses. We’re working pretty closely with the International Rhino Foundation. We made a great video about a baby rhinoceros named Andatu and we may do a book with them next year.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman pursuing a career in investigative journalism?

Katherine Eban: First of all, you’ve got to have a really thick hide. This is not a popularity contest. I have done stories where I’ve been threatened, sued, lambasted on the internet. The best advice I ever got was from a mentor in college. When I was going for my Rhodes interview, he said to me, “Take it seriously, but not personally.” That was great advice. You also need mentors and a great editor.

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in life?

Katherine Eban: My children – seeing them happy, healthy, learning and thriving. And big animals!

Rhodes Project:  How do you define success?

Katherine Eban: I told my 6 year old this: you have succeeded if you have helped to make the world a better place. I don’t care what she chooses to do professionally, so long as helps to improve the world.  For me, that is exposing injustice through investigative reporting and trying desperately to help stop the slaughter of these animals so they are around in a generation.

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